Privacy commissioner not yet satisfied with Bell's about-face on ad tracking

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner is not yet satisfied with Bell’s commitment on seeking customer consent before tracking cellphone use to deliver targeted online advertising.

The federal agency met Wednesday with the telecom giant, a day after the company said it would accept the commissioner’s recommendation to get explicit consent or opt-in before using private viewing patterns and sensitive personal information to create profiles that are sold to advertisers.

Privacy commissioner spokeswoman Tobi Cohen said talks are continuing, but the commissioner is keeping open the option of pursuing the matter in Federal Court “if a solution cannot be reached to our satisfaction.”

“Suffice it to say that it would be premature to say that we have arrived at a solution on the issue of opt-in,” she said.

Bell Canada (TSX:BCE) later declined to specify the areas of disagreement, but said it was “working co-operatively” with the privacy commissioner.

“Bell is moving to the opt-in approach as confirmed yesterday,” said spokesman Mark Langton. “We hope these rules will apply to international companies competing here, like Google and Facebook, in the same way they do to Canadian companies like Bell.”

The privacy commissioner’s report, issued Tuesday, declined to comment on these examples raised by Bell, saying each investigation must be determined on its own merits.

“Further, it goes without saying that the fact that other industry players may be engaged in similar privacy practices does not render those practices acceptable if they are in contravention of (the act),” said the report.

The agency also said it was not aware of any other telecom company pursuing a program similar to Bell’s. It said Telus (TSX:T) has indicated it would not use personal information of customers without express consent.

Despite the commissioner’s efforts, the issue of Bell Canada tracking cellphone use remains unresolved until the CRTC rules on complaints filed by consumer groups.

Calling the practice an abuse of privacy, the Public Interest Advocacy Centre has filed a complaint with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, arguing Bell has gone beyond its role as a provider of telecom services.

Executive director John Lawford said telecom legislation prohibits Bell from using confidential information to support a new business that secures revenues from selling to advertisers the interest profiles of its customers.

“I doubt the genuineness of (Bell’s) climb-down too,” he said after Bell signalled it would accept the commissioner’s recommendation. “I’m happy that they are, but it’s not the end of the story.”

Privacy commissioner Daniel Therrien had urged Bell to review its approach after releasing the results of an investigation prompted by an “unprecedented” 170 privacy complaints.

It determined Bell shouldn’t assume that customers are consenting to have vast amounts of their personal information tracked simply because they haven’t explicitly objected.

Follow @RossMarowits on Twitter